In the span of a decade and a half, East Williamsburg, a neighborhood in northwest Brooklyn, has gone from one of the borough’s most dangerous neighborhoods to a caricature of Brooklyn hip. Years of relentless development have turned the low-slung, heavily industrial area into a destination for Saturday night revelers and even young families looking to settle down. Local blogs warn of two new luxury hotels planned for the area, while a warehouse across from the Morgan Avenue subway station is being transformed into a “grittier Chelsea Market.” Groups of photo-snapping European tourists on graffiti tours are now ubiquitous, and even Bill and Hillary Clinton made the trek out to sample the pies at Roberta’s pizzeria.
The New York Loft Hostel, located on Varet Street just two blocks from the neighborhood’s subway station, fit in well with East Williamsburg’s new image. Equipped with a sun deck and bar, the building provided affordable accommodations to many of the neighborhood’s newfound tourists. But in August, locals learned through an article at Bushwick Daily and signs stuck to trees and storefronts that the hostel was closing and being converted into a 140-bed men’s homeless shelter.
Rumors began to spread through the bars and coffee shops that now pocket Bogart Street and Flushing Avenue. Whispers of safety concerns and lost business proliferated. Investors, homeowners, and business proprietors asked if the shelter would derail their efforts to transform the artsy, diverse area into a tourist haven and entertainment district. Some seemed sure that it would.
“The people who moved in there feel like pioneers,” Betty Cooney, executive director of the Graham Avenue Business Improvement District, said in a phone interview. “They pioneered the area from somewhere you wouldn’t want to even walk at night, and now it’s become really a special place.”
The shelter, Cooney said, “just brings down the area.”
The facility has pitted young gentrifiers and some older business owners who say they’ve shepherded the neighborhood through hard times against city officials who are under more pressure than ever to find places for the city’s 59,000 homeless men, women, and children to stay. Since taking office in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has leaned on the city’s decades-old practice of using hotels to house the homeless as it works to reform a sprawling, broken shelter system and address the lack of affordable housing for low-income residents. As officials try to mitigate the worst homelessness crisis the city has seen since the Great Depression by spreading shelters more equitably throughout the five boroughs, the question emerging in progressive areas like East Williamsburg is whether economic self-interest trumps a commitment to fairness.
* * *
In 1979, in response to a case brought by the founders of the Coalition for the Homeless on behalf of a homeless Korean War veteran named Robert Callahan, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the city is legally required to provide a roof for any New Yorker in need of one.